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Sustainability in the Federal Government: The State of Green IT

Originally published April 20, 2010

The last two years have seen an explosion of interest and activity in “green IT” within the federal government. More broadly referred to as sustainability, it has opened substantial opportunities for consulting and business development that could be pursued, especially for business intelligence (BI) practitioners.

Sustainability is a term borrowed from the development economists and ecologists and whose common usage stems from the early 1980s. In a much touted United Nations report prepared by the Brundtland Commission – named after former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland – a new direction was postulated for bringing a level of prosperity to the poorer nations of the earth in a way that was both effective in addressing their economic needs while being respectful of the environment. The call went out for sustainable development or “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The concept has now spread to many other contexts and has resonated significantly in the wake of the climate change debate.

Sustainable or "green" IT means different things to different people, but it has implications for the manufacture, management, utilization and disposal of IT. The objective is to minimize environmental harm in the process of engaging IT at all levels. If you are a hardware vendor you will be expected to be mindful of the environment and reduce the toxic chemicals used in manufacturing IT products and to focus on energy efficiency and recycling. If you are a user or consumer, sustainability has to do with buying energy-efficient IT equipment, as well as managing its power consumption, and enforcing an environmentally safe approach to disposing of that equipment at the end of its useful life.

The private sector started to look at green IT some years back after being confronted by many statistics compelling responsible corporations to pay attention: Computer emissions are “comparable to the level of greenhouse gasses being produced by all the world’s airplanes” (CIO Magazine – Why Green IT is Better IT, 28 March 07). Today several impressive success stories are making the rounds and give testimony to what can be accomplished. (In last month’s article, we reported that in 2007, IBM conserved over 5 million gallons of fuel and avoided more than 450,000 tons of CO2 emissions.)

Aside from all the high-minded environmental reasons for adopting green IT, business and industry have discovered that there are quite substantial cost reductions to be accrued from sustainability policies. Energy efficiency in particular means lower utility bills; recycling has often meant finding alternate ways of disposing of equipment and adding to its end-of-life value; telecommuting can bring substantial savings in office space and other overhead costs.

The Federal government engaged sustainable IT later than the private sector but it has been moving quickly to reduce the gap. Here are some important notes on what has happened and the identification of resources to assist federal IT managers.

The CIO Council, originally established by Executive Order 13011 (Federal Information Technology) and later codified by the E-Government Act of 2002, is the principal interagency forum to improve agency practices for the management of information technology. In January 2009, it formulated six guiding principles (below) in its Transition Guide for Federal CIOs.

  • Empowering the government through information sharing
  • Protecting the networks and systems required to operate in the information age
  • Tapping the power of a collaborative citizenry
  • Leveraging scale-economies and combined expertise to achieve best practices and act as an “enterprise”
  • Ensuring the federal government is an “employer of choice”
  • Focusing on environmental responsibility
As we can see, the last one specifically addresses green IT and provides the following guidance:

“Reducing our environmental footprint is an imperative both ecologically and financially. Green computing is synergistic with best practices such as cloud computing, consolidation of networks, collaboration, telework, etc. There is a tremendous opportunity for a positive environment impact through the more effective use of information technology.”

The CIO Council also provides some additional pointers on how to “preserve the environment while improving service delivery,” among them: 1) moving to the cloud and virtual computing environments; 2) advancing mobile computing and enhanced collaboration capabilities; and 3) adopting energy efficient best practices.

The press has followed suit and Federal Computer Week, one of the prime IT journals addressing the government IT marketplace, now includes “green IT” as one of its hot topics and has a portal site dedicated to it.

The Obama Administration has been moving aggressively. On October 5, 2009, the president issued an Executive Order mandating a series of environmental measures for Federal agencies. These included several specific items focused on IT such as ordering federal data center management to be run in an energy efficient manner and requiring agencies to use environmentally sound practices when disposing of excess or surplus electronic products. Agencies are also told to choose environmentally preferable products such as those certified by the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool.

Meanwhile, as interest in green IT grows, the different federal communities are organizing around it. The popular social networking site “LinkedIn” now features a Federal Green IT Group. If you are a member of LinkedIn, you can join the group.

The GSA has taken the lead in much of federal sustainable IT. There are a series of GSA Environmental Initiatives – Go Green – that are relevant and have a sprinkling of green IT-related items. These are centered on the “green buildings” concept as it relates to Federal work centers, but they are not focused on IT.

What does this all mean for business intelligence and BI practitioners? Green IT has many implications for BI, but the first and most important one has to do with measuring its impact. What are the key metrics that we must track? If energy efficiency is so important, can we start to show how new acquisition or utilization programs are contributing to reducing costs? Or decreasing the carbon footprint of the average fed? Or how about just starting to track methods of disposal and rating them on some “green” scale?

While there are many dashboards emerging all throughout the Federal IT environment, especially encouraged by the new Federal CIO, Vivek Kundra, I have not been able to identify one for monitoring and managing “green IT” or even “Federal green buildings.” This may provide an opportunity for us to explore.
  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


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